When Farouk Baakar speaks, his voice is full of pain and anger as he describes his “death-like experience” of being detained and tortured at the hands of the Houthi militia for 15 months in Yemen’s capital Sanaa.
Baakar, a 26-year-old doctor who was recently released after his family paid the group a large sum of ransom money, is one of many Yemenis, including journalists, who have been arbitrarily arrested and tortured by the Iran-backed militia that took over Sanaa in 2014.
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Baakar says he was initially detained in Sanaa in November 2016 after treating a rebel who fought the Houthis. “They (the Houthis) kept asking me why I had saved his (the fighter’s) life. I told them it was my duty as a doctor,” he tells Al Jazeera while recalling being forced out of the hospital where he worked and into a car.
Like many prisoners in Yemen, Baakar’s detention and enforced disappearance was just the beginning. While his family was unaware of his whereabouts for months before they were eventually told, Baakar says he was taken to a series of unidentified prisons and tortured in various ways.
“I spent 50 days in an underground prison with barely any oxygen. I was hung by my wrists from the ceiling and left in my own faeces and urine to rot. I wasn’t allowed to wash once.
“They extracted my fingernails and used a cable to press onto the flesh underneath. I lost consciousness from the sheer amount of pain.”
“They burned me with fire and dipped me in water that they’d run an electric current through. They beat me with all sorts of electric cables and iron rods,” explains Baakar, who says he saw nails, dead animals and body parts at some of the detention centres while he was imprisoned.
“In that prison, I felt like I was already dead,” he adds.
Baakar encountered fellow prisoners who had lost their eyesight or become severely ill inside Houthi detention centres.
“I saw detainees chained to the walls. They were bleeding around their feet, and their wounds from the chains had become infected with puss and worms.
“One guy had been hung from his penis; he couldn’t urinate for two whole weeks. When I saw him, I knew that was the end of his manhood,” says Baakar, who claims that he was punished for trying to treat some of the detainees during his imprisonment.
“As a doctor, I couldn’t see them (the other detainees) suffer without trying to help. Whenever I was caught, I was made to experience the same pain they had,” he tells Al Jazeera.
I was hung from the ceiling by my wrists and left in my own faeces and urine to rot. In that prison, I felt like I was already dead.
The Houthi armed group has controlled large parts of Yemen since late 2014. In conjunction with forces loyal to the late and deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh, as well as state security and intelligence agencies, the group has arbitrarily arrested, detained and disappeared its opponents, as well as tortured and mistreated detainees, reported Amnesty International in February.
The Houthi crackdown intensified in March 2015, when a Saudi-led coalition of Arab countries supporting the Abdel Mansour Hadi’s government, launched a massive bombing campaign aimed at rolling back Houthi advances. The Saudi-led campaign, supported by the UAE, has also resulted in massive civilian casualties – with weddings, hospitals and funerals attacked.
Replying to these claims, Houthi political bureau leader Mohamed al-Bukhati told Al Jazeera: “All cases I investigated that alleged torture [in detention] led to death or permanent injury were found to be false claims.
“That does not negate the fact that some journalists have been exposed to harassment.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented many of the human rights abuses suffered at the hands of the Houthi authorities in Yemen.
Although many documented cases are in Houthi-controlled areas, the issue of arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances and torture is not happening exclusively in Houthi prisons, according to HRW.
“It (the human rights abuse) is absolutely a problem in Houthi areas, but it is a wider problem [than that],” Kristine Beckerle, Yemen and UAE researcher at HRW told Al Jazeera.
“We’ve also documented arbitrary detention and forced disappearances in prisons under government control, as well as in areas under the control of UAE-backed forces.”
Deaths in detention
While human rights groups inside and outside of Yemen have been able to record many cases of torture in detention, they have also documented some cases of deaths in custody.
“No one will know the truth unless there is a credible investigation into what happened,” Beckerle told Al Jazeera.
HRW documented two deaths in custody in 2016, but Um Muhammed from the Sanaa-based Association of Abductees’ Mothers says the actual number of deaths in detention is much higher.
“We’ve documented at least 117 cases of death in custody that seem to have either been caused by torture or neglect,” she said.
The association is looking into the death in custody of Muhammed Ghurab, a 28-year-old pharmacist from Sanaa who was detained four years ago and reportedly died in Houthi prisons last week.
We have documented extreme forms of abuse including people dying in detention.
According to a source close to Ghurab’s family, the family received his body on Friday after they were informed by the Houthis that he died as a result of contracting tuberculosis while in detention.
“His family visited him a few weeks ago. His mother nearly passed out from what she saw. He was extremely thin and he complained of severe chest pains,” said the source who did not wish to be named for fear of retribution.
“The symptoms Muhammed had complained of when the family visited didn’t align with tuberculosis,” added the source, who believes Ghurab had either died from neglect or was poisoned.
According to the source, there have been five other cases of reported deaths at the same detention centre – the political security prison in Sanaa – since Ghurab’s death.
In addition to torture in detention, systematic kidnapping and imprisonment are widely reported in Houthi-controlled areas.
The case of Abdel Hadi al-Shami, 38, who was released about a month ago after a two-year stint in Houthi prisons, is one example of the many who were disappeared and tortured by the Houthis.
Al-Shami, a sheikh leader of the Arhab tribe, one of the most prominent tribes in Sanaa, said his family was unaware of his whereabouts for five months before they came to visit him for the first time.
“When I was detained, I was moved from one prison or detention centre to the next without my family knowing anything about where I had gone,” said al-Shami. “When my family finally came, it only lasted eight minutes.”
Al-Shami was released as part of a prisoner exchange deal between his tribe and the Houthis and, a month later, still complains of the effects of the torture he experienced in detention.
“I was chained and hung from the ceiling for hours and then left blindfolded and in solitary confinement for three months. I lost some of my eyesight as a result,” says al-Shami who recalls being left in a cell with a snake for 10 hours.
“The dents caused by the chains around my wrists are still deep and visible today,” he adds.
The Houthi crackdown on opponents has affected a wide range of opposition forces, but activists and journalists have been specifically targeted.
According to Baraa Shiban, a Yemeni human rights activist and caseworker at Reprieve, most individuals who have been targeted by the Houthi militia are “usually activists from 2011”, when the Arab Spring swept through the region.
“There was a general feeling among the Houthis that by arresting all the activists since 2011, they could suppress any possible scenario of protest or any form of public anger,” said Shiban. “And so, since September 2014, many of these activists have been picked up from their homes and places of work.”
“Today, you can’t see protests against the Houthis in Sanaa, nor hear a single voice of opposition. It (these tactics) have helped them control the narrative coming out [of Sanaa].”
The dents caused by the chains around my wrists are still deep and visible today.
In a 2016 Amnesty International report that documented the cases of 60 individuals who were arbitrarily arrested and forcibly disappeared in prisons in areas under Houthi-Saleh control, the organisation highlighted the targeting of “journalists and activists [who] have been detained for more than two years, had their offices looted or closed, and had their friends and family members threatened”.
Among those documented by human rights organisations is the case of Yousif Ajlan, a 29-year-old former journalist for Al-Masdar news website in Sanaa, who was detained in October 2016 for more than a year.
He says his family was unaware of his whereabouts for 26 days before they were finally informed.
“When my family finally came to visit me forty days after my abduction, the prison guards beat me and denied me from speaking to them,” recalls Ajlan.
Ajlan, who now lives in Istanbul, said he was released in November 2017 as part of a prisoner exchange agreed between the Houthis and the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The Houthis had forced him to stop working as a journalist a few months prior to his abduction, but he was still taken anyway, he said.
“The Houthis consider every opponent an enemy or traitor. I left journalism and worked as a taxi driver, but the Houthis still came for me,” explained Ajlan, who says that he had been initially detained in 2015 and threatened with death if he did not stop reporting.
“They consider journalists the biggest threat to them. Sanaa is now empty of journalists. The few that remain are Houthi propagandists,” said Ajlan.